New Growth through Change

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New growth presence of positive

Absence of the negative or the presence of the positive?

This is new growth..
I like this photo so much that I decided to use it on my business card. The reason it appeals to me is that the old, in this case the shell of a dead tree, has become a place for the new growth. The fact that this sapling was able to use the shelter of that shell of a tree trunk to flourish is inspiring to me.

It reminds me of one of the most important lessons I learned as a grad student while working with one of my mentors in residential treatment in Milwaukee – The absence of the negative is not the same as the presence of the positive. I remember teaching Decisional balances to newly sober adults and adolescents and asking them for the benefits and drawbacks of changing or going back to using alcohol or other drugs. Many of us, me included until I learned this valuable lesson, confused the absence of drawbacks (or negatives) with the presence of benefits (or positives).

Here’s an example.. When someone is making a change in their life and he or she is asked to describe the benefits of that change, sometimes the first things that are noted are things like, “I don’t have to be worried about all the bad things that happened before the change” – perhaps, for someone dealing with addiction, it would be driving intoxicated, or for someone dealing with depression that hadn’t been treated, it would be loss of motivation to do daily activities. The point is, the benefits of getting treatment for depression or getting sober really aren’t no longer having difficulty finding motivation or no longer driving intoxicated. Those are the absence of negative traits associated with the problem behavior. And focusing on the absence of those negatives does not keep people focused on change, long term.

So what does?

The presence of the positive.

Martin Seligman, sometimes called the father of Positive Psychology, discussed what he called the three kinds of happiness. Initially, the “Pleasant Life” is about learning to enjoy and appreciate simple pleasures like friendship, nature and our needs – in terms of eating, drinking, sleeping, etc.  Seligman warns that we can become stuck at this point and not move forward towards the “Good Life”. This phase is concerned with finding our strengths and virtues (which he lists) and then using them to enhance our lives. This is about recognizing our unique values. He notes that one of the primary means of finding out our own values is by giving back to others – this is the final phase, called the “Meaningful Life”. In this, we find our deepest value for a greater good. There are a lot of opinions about this idea of happiness. What can be agreed upon by everyone, is that happiness is important and not found within just serving the self.

Getting back to the presence of the positive – these three phases have often been cited by people in the midst of real change in their lives, when discussing the presence of the positive. And as individuals move towards the “Meaningful” phase, long term change becomes much more sustainable.

It has been long taught in self help communities especially that in order to keep sobriety, individuals have to “give it away”. This means that they work to be of service to others dealing with the challenges in getting and maintaining sobriety. Becoming of service to others is very closely tied to the “Meaningful Life” that Seligman described.

Perhaps the change has to do with leaving a relationship that is unsustainable or dysfunctional. Instead of looking forward to the end of negative communication or less than hoped for interactions, the presence of the positive – beginning with enjoying one’s time with self more, and learning what one really wants in various aspects of life – that is where the presence of the positive can encourage long term growth.  As the relationship with self continues to grow and the “Good Life” becomes apparent, moving towards new friendships – moving into the “Meaningful Life” – is able to be grasped.

Returning to the photo of the sapling, I personally and professionally think that so much of our growth comes from the endings of what came before. Eventually, new seedlings can sprout up from the fertile soil where the decomposing tree remains. The presence of the positive also comes from learning the lessons from those behaviors that no longer serve us.